How a self-taught designer built a $3 million hat business

Janessa Leoné was a University of San Diego graduate en route to law school when travel inspired her to change course. After finding a 1940s black fedora in Paris for just €10, Leoné noticed she shared a last name with the milliner. “I was like, oh my gosh, maybe somehow I need to go down this path,” she says. “I wanted to make something that could withstand that amount of time…still in its pristine condition and make that accessible to people at a modest price point.”

Pursuing this plan meant Leoné needed to save money. The English literature major spent two years living with her parents and nannying until she had socked away $10,000. In 2013, $2,000 went toward the first production run, to which she added hand-sewn feathers and leather trim. Another 5% sent samples to fashion editors. Two weeks later, Barney’s placed an order.

It’s been a perfect fit. The self-funded 30-year-old’s eponymous line now carries 24 hat varieties and handbags in 450 stores, including its own brick-and-mortar in Culver City, Calif. This year, Leoné, who landed a spot on Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30list, anticipates $3 million in revenue on hats costing $200 to $300. “I’m not satisfied with staying stagnant, so I’m constantly going to evolve,” she says. “I think that will always be the case for the brand.”

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